Blog #54 – Community Land Trusts as Transformative Housing Reforms


Community Land Trusts as Transformative Housing Reforms

That New York City has a housing problem is rather well known. The devil here is indeed in the big picture as well as in the details. 47% of the city’s low-income renters[1] pay more than half of their incomes to obtain housing. Imagine what paying half your income just for housing means for the ordinary person, let alone one with limited income. 24% live in overcrowded quarters, more than 1.5 persons per room in the standard definition. Neighborhoods are clustered by race, ethnicity, income, household composition –what impolite critics call segregated, one of the most segregated (84.3 on the widely used dissimilarity index, where 100is completely segregated. Only Gary, Detroit, and Milwaukee, of the 314 other metropolitan area in the United States, are more segregated.[2] 224,000 units were in physically poor conditions. 164,000 units were vacant but not available for sale or rent, according even to the official figures.[3]There were 15,993 mortgage foreclosures in the city in 2013;

Bloomberg News[1] headlined the fact:

FORECLOSURES SURGING IN NEW YORK-NEW JERSEY MARKET.

Community Land Trusts may have a significant effect on New York City’s housing crisis, may affect struggling and even prospering neighborhoods, may achieve significant savings in the city’s budget for housing while increasing the afford housing supply for families in trouble. But their long term impact may go further, and be a transformative new way of looking at the housing market and its limits, and model the way it can best function to serve the needs of all the city’s resident.

 

The federal government has, in its fashion, responded to such problems; New York City has the highest number of public housing unit, owned and managed, and maintained (in niggardly fashion) by the New York City Housing Authority itself. New York State has, if reluctantly, permitted the city to establish limits on the rents that can be charged for a declining portion of the city’s large renal stock. Mayor Bloomberg responded by pushing for extensive new construction of units, with a minor allocation to those most in need. Mayor de Blasio has put forward an extensive and expensive new housing plan that envisages 200,000 new units, and more, in the next 10 years.

 

But of course, when we say “New York City has a housing problem,” hat does not mean everyone in the city has a problem. The New York Real Estate Board holds that the real estate market has rebounded from the bursting of bubble that the industry, with the active encouragement of the financial sector, itself produced so recently. Rents going up are good news for landlords, if bad for tenants.[5] Mortgage foreclosures by banks and other financial institutions provide opportunities for big operators to buy up homes at a bargain, throwing home owners willy-nilly onto the rental market, shattering hopes of accumulating wealth by investing in “asset building” in a housing market sure only to go up, not down. At the same time, a Rent Stabilization Board makes sure rent regulation won’t prevent landlords from covering the costs when they go, protecting the profits from their investments, regardless of whether that means their tenants chances of meeting their basic needs are widely jeopardized. Talk of inequality!

 

A tiny new non-profit, called NYCCLI, somewhat incongruously pronounceable as “nicely,” the New York City Community Land Initiative,has just been incorporated in New York. What does it hope to offer to deal with this situation? Quite a bit, it turns out. NYCCLI’s formal incorporation papers describe it purpose as “advocating for community land trusts.”

 

And what is a community land trust? A community land trust is a trust that typically owns land, on which the housing unit or units are leased, for 99 years, to a limited equity co-op which provides homes for households, typically lower to moderate income, who occupy the buildings as members of such a co-op and have all the rights a home owners would have except for the right to sell the unit at a profit. Their sales price is set by a formula approved by the trust, typically permitting recovering the purchase price plus improvements plus some cost-of-living adjustment, but excluding the value of the land, which of course remains with the trust. The trust that owns the land also sets some basic rules for its use, basically to ensure that the housing on it will be permanently available to household who need it at the most affordable rents possible. The board that runs the trust is typically composed 1/3 each of residents of it housing, residents of its neighborhood, and supporters, who may come from government, advocacy groups, or technical experts who may be helpful to the trust. [6]

 

What good are community land trusts? They have four major advantages:

 

First, they make possible the creation of affordable housing on a permanent basis, especially for lower income households. CLTs make a key trade-off: they give up the possibility of speculating on an abnormal increase in the dollar value of the home in return for the security of knowing there is no threat of loss if housing prices go down and no danger of eviction if the cost of occupancy become unaffordable because of job loss or ill health or other circumstances beyond a household’s ability to control. And unlike almost all currently existing affordable housing programs, if a community land trust receives public subsidy, its benefits remain permanently available to their targeted low/moderate income recipients, and do not expire after a fixed time period of 20 or 30 or 40 years, and costs for such future residents have been permanently fixed to exclude any increases in the speculative value of the unit.

 

 

Second, community land trusts build communities and stabilize neighborhoods. They provide for deeply democratic management of their housing. By having not only residents but also neighbors and supporters from the wider community on their boards, they can provide diversity, establish priorities for expenditures, achieve efficiencies of scale, and put the strength of the trust behind individual members falling on hard times

 

Third, community land trusts represent a whole new approach to the principles governing the way housing is distributed, occupied, and used in a democratic society, limiting the intensity of the inequality induced by a private market which sees housing as a commodity to be bought and sold for its exchange value, for the profit it may produce, instead of for the needs it may satisfy, its social use value. NYCCLI’s approach can help change housing from a symbol and magnifier of inequality to address at least in part one of inequality’s main causes.

 

But fourth, and in the long run perhaps most important, they can be transformative.

 

Community land trusts challenge the arrangements of a housing market used to the pleasures and pains of speculating on housing value, which is, economically, fundamentally speculating on the value of a given location, and instead see housing as a necessity of a decent life and a supportive environment for all. And they provide the same opportunity for “wealth creation” or “asset building” as does buying a house with a mortgage and paying off the mortgage: put the equivalent of what is put into paying off the mortgage principal and interest on the land into a savings account or other good investment, and you have the accumulation with perhaps even less risk. Putting this together, they can move from seeing housing as a commodity, valued for its exchange value, the profit it can produce, and see it rather as a necessity of life, even perhaps up to a certain configuration as a public good.

 

The different tenures of housing and the legal and financial relationships householders have to the housing they occupy have major implications for the way people live. Community land trusts can provide a form of home ownership for a resident that combines the privacy and security and insulation of the American Dreams’ single family suburban house with the solidarity and support and social richness of the ideal urban life-style. Immediately, to reach the lowest income groups, they will need some public support for acquisition or basic running costs, and they richly deserve such support.[7] In the long run, transformatively, they can benefit not only their residents but the neighborhoods and the housing system

 

[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-26/foreclosures-climaxing-in-new-york-new-jersey-market-mortgages.html

[2] Censusscope, available at http://www.censusscope.org/us/rank_dissimilarity_white_black.html

[3] The Census Bureau’s Housing and Vacancy Survey for 2011,. The count by Picture the Homeless suggests a significantly higher figure.

[4] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-26/foreclosures-climaxing-in-new-york-new-jersey-market-mortgages.html

[5] The Real Estate Board summarizes:

“,,,notable gains this quarter, as compared to the second quarter of 2013, included: the 19-percent-increase in the average sales price for all homes in Brooklyn to $715,000; the 15-percent-boost in coop sales in Queens; and the 13-percent-increase in the average sales price for a coop in New York City to $768,000. The residential market in Manhattan also remained strong with the average sales price for all homes increasing by six percent to $1,491,000 year-over-year” http://www.rebny.com/content/rebny/en/newsroom/press-releases/2014/REBNY_2014_2Q_Report_Improving_Economy_Drives_Residential_Sales.html

[6] Detailed information is available from the national Community Trust Network, whose website, at http://cltnetwork.org/, contans extensive references to further materials, as do NYCCLI’s own educational materials.

[7] And remember the enormous subsidy that inures disproportionately to higher income households from the mortgage interest deduction in our income tax system.

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Blog #53 – Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Cautions on de Blasio’s Plan


Density, Inclusionary Zoning, Housing Planning: Some Cautions on  the           de Blasio Plan.

Mayor de Blasio’s Housing Plan is a far better plan than anything we’ve had since LaGuardia, and worthy of full support. But there are four large issues that need to be addressed, some in its principles, some in implementation: Density, Growth, Equity, and Comprehensiveness.

Density leads to gentrification and displacement, if not controlled [1]. There is a natural tendency look to the market to determine where increased density will work, to support increased density by zoning decisions, infrastructure investment location, tax policies, eased building height and FAR requirements, support for mega-projects, where the market indicates there is effective demand. That means, specifically, where there is the proverbial rent gap: where increased real estate values, particularly land values, suggest higher profits are to be gained by improvements, whether modernization and upscaling or higher and more dense new construction. Permitting such “improvements” thus is synonymous with increasing the prices of housing, not only in the locations made more dense, but in their surroundings. That in turn means one of the principal causes of gentrification and displacement is is advanced by public policy.

But there are good ways and bad ways of increasing density, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permitting demolition of low-rise low-rent housing in favor of denser more expensive housing.
  • Permitting new housing in public housing sites for occupancy at market rates, where low-rent, i.e. subsidized housing could be built. Increasing density in already gentrifying neighborhoods.
  • Permitting densification without neighborhood rent regulations, fair and strictly enforced.
  • Permitting open and undeveloped space to be built on without regard to existing neighborhood use and needs.
  • Disregarding unbiased neighborhood opposition and community-based planning goals.
  • Increasing congestion and pollution without adequate transportation provision.
  • Providing bonuses permitting development beyond existing planning limitations

Good:

  • Increasing density by requiring that partially-occupied and vacant properties being held off market for speculative purposes be made available for occupancy, at affordable rents.
  • Improving public housing.
  • Increasing the supply of subsidized housing.
  • Controlling against the displacement effects of gentrification by rent regulation strictly enforced.
  • Make every program increasing density subject to open Community Board review, with over-riding of its vote only by a super-majority of Planning commission and City Council.
  • Investing in remediation of brownfield sites while preserving compatible industrial or commercial uses providing benefits equitably distributed.
  • Complying with community and city-wide planning standards regarding contextual development, light and air standards, accessibility provision and congestion avoidance.

Inclusionary housing can lead to neighborhoods further functionally segregated by race and income, if not controlled, and can be an inefficient use of governmental subsidies if provided. Inclusionary housing only works where the market is strong enough so that a developer or landlord can make a profit from market prices high enough to cover the provision of below-market rate units. Thus, it will only work in higher income neighborhoods, predictably more non-Hispanic white than the in the city as a whole. That effect will be particularly strong the lower the income of the target population to be benefited, in the development, because it will require a greater cross-subsidy, hence higher market rate units, hence even more likely non-Hispanic white. . And if it is limited to already higher income neighborhoods, it is likely to increase the concentration of significantly segregated residences in the city if it provides bonuses for buildings which result in a net increase of the proportion of high-income uses in the larger community. A very delicate balancing is required, with opposing dangers.

Further, the higher the effective subsidy needed, the higher the rents/prices of the market rate units needed to make inclusion profitable. If owners are permitted to select the tenants providing meting inclusionary requirements, they will discriminate in favor of the highest permitted income and the most “responsible” (“acceptable” ) tenants, creaming among applicants by considerations other than the need for housing. With the large majority of residents of an inclusionary development paying market plus rents, their demands on neighborhood facilities and services will be very different from those of the residents of the below-market rate units, to the latters’ disadvantage. Identifying the below-market rate units as such permits a likely stigmatization and pressure to separate out their residents. The worst case scenario might be the equivalent of servant’s quarters in a private residence.

But there are good ways and bad ways of designing and implementing inclusionary zoning, if the purpose is to address housing needs in an equitable fashion.

Bad:

  • Permit the market to determine where inclusionary housing will be provided.
  • Implement it particularly in transitional neighborhoods where the probability and disadvantages of gentrification are greatest.[2]
  • Let owners determine selection of residents for below-market-rate units.
  • Permit external identification of affordable units, or their isolation.
  • Ignore neighborhood impacts of construction, and neighborhood needs for facilities and services.
  • Make inclusionary development financially profitable by allocating public subsidies , including tax and other benefits, to support their rentals, effectively reducing the pressure on market-rate rentals and reducing cross-subsidy effect.
  • Provide as bonuses deviation from neighborhood planning and construction standards and limitations, e.g. height limits, zoning restrictions.
  • Permit obligation to provide below-market rate units to expire.

Good:

  • Make inclusionary housing mandatory, and target city programs of support in such a way that they draw on the developer’s profits over subsidies to support them.
  • Require a high enough number of below-market-rate units in any building to permit the provision of neighborhood facilities and services for the needs of all residents.
  • Permit city control of tenant selection for below-market units, perhaps using Housing Authority waiting lists and criteria.
  • Hold to planning-established limits on height, set-backs, etc. avoiding the granting of zoning and building exceptions’ or bonuses for inclusionary developments.
  • Provide for major participation in design and implementation of proposed beneficiaries in need of affordable housing.
  • Make every program subject to open Community Board review, with over-riding of its vote only by a super-majority of Planning commission and City Council.

Conclusion: Inclusionary housing can be an excellent program, but requires caution in its application. The devil is in the details. On-going effective participation of intended beneficiaries in need of housing is key in design and implementation.

A good Housing Plan requires long-term considerations beyond its immediate measures.Desirable provisions of a housing plan for New York City might include a city-wide housing plan developed as part of the city’s comprehensive planning process, that would deal with goals and standards for decisions on the location of housing and population distribution and density. Such a plan should deal explicitly with issues of segregation and equity among income groups and by race, color, ethnicity, age and gender. Zoning should be an important part of the implementation of such a plan, and specifically should include consideration of income-targeting land use allocation, as in providing income targets in the definitions of residential zones.

It should be comprehensive, and consider issues such as: zoning regulations facilitating for low income housing; Rent regulations. Tax action policies, taxing profits fairly, holding down depreciation deductions to match reality, surtaxes on flipping housing units, taxing quick turnover sales as ordinary income, making real estate taxes progressive, conforming to binding 197-a comunity plans, calling for equity impact statements on planning decisions, adopting clear city equity standards.Make a housing plan part of the city’s planning process, including goals for an agreed-upon equitable distributing of locations for housing development.[3] Adopt anti speculative warehousing legislation to deal with the full use of vacant units. Give due weight to the need for open space and active public political uses as well as recreational and passive. Integrate with regional considerations.

A general concern with the plan may arise from the process envisaged to put it into effect. The de Blasio Plan states:

“the City will conduct the analyses required for development of a mandatory inclusionary zoning program that satisfies sound land-use planning and legal principles, then will engage a broad group of housing stakeholders to solicit their input into the modifications and expansions of the Inclusionary Housing Program, and will work with stakeholders moving forward to ensure that the program functions smoothly to support development while also meeting the needs of communities” p. 31.

But if all “stakeholders,” regardless of their position, resources, and needs are treated as equals, equity is ill served, and inequalities are as likely to reinforced as reduced. A more robust arrangement for public participation is required, in which community and grass-roots active participation is supported.

A comprehensive look at the extent of the long-term over-all need for better affordable housing will show that the de Blasio plan is only one step, although an important one, in meeting the full need.[4] The private profit-driven market should be brought in to contribute. But to rely on public-private partnerships to solve the problem is ultimately a refusal to recognize that it will not do so, and cannot be expected to do so. Ultimately public provision is an inescapable necessity. The private housing sector should contribute to the necessary resources, by tools like mandatory inclusionary zoning, and certainly by progressive taxation, but the responsibility to pursue equity in housing is a public, not a private, responsibility.

Growth is not per se desirable. There is an underlying assumption running through the plan that considers growth to be a value for itself, development to be per se a good thing, even though it is often qualified as having “serving community needs” or “serve low and moderate income households.” It is an assumption that deserves examination. New York City today is a city where “growth” is largely led by its financial sector, whose prosperity becomes a threshold factor in the establishment of priorities.

Growth, generally, is desirable that reduces inequality.[5] Is growth desired if it increases inequality? Or increases segregation? Both short and long term factors come into play, and perhaps complex economic analyses, but should equity not be of fundamentally importance, rather than growth for its own sake?

Framing an equitable plan for housing is a complex process. De Blasio’s plan is a major step forward. But there is more to be done.

[1] For a look a the historical treatment of density in New York City’s development, see Marcuse, Peter. 1993. “Density and Social Justice: Is There a Relationship? A Historical Examination” Columbia Documents of Architecture and Theory (D), vol. Three, pp. 50‑87.

[2] De Blasio’s plan speaks of focus on transitional neighborhoods, p.8 but it also calls for it “in all medium and high density districts where rezonings provide an opportunity for significantly more housing.” P.30

[3] The plan speaks encouragingly of following policies “that [satisfy] sound land-use planning and legal “Principles; p. 31. They need to explicitly deal with issues of equity and segregation. ”

[4] The data in the Plan itself support this conclusion, as well as the detailed figures from the Housing and Vacancy Survey and studies of the Furman Center and a number of other sources.

[5] Reducing inequality is well known as a key de Blasio concern, and that is reflected frequently in the plan, e.g. p. 26, but requires concretization in application.